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An upside-down view of South Africa

Zip-lining in South Africa’s Karkloof nature reserve offers stunning views of forest and farmland as well as excitement

The ziplining platforms are built high amidst the trees to give you an upside-down view of the forested world

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I am hurtling over a lush canopy of trees at nearly 65km an hour, the adrenaline junkie in me squealing in joy. The wind is whistling in my ears, the forest floor is not visible and green branches rush by at what seems like incredible speed. It is exhilarating, breathtaking, but also heart-stopping.

I am gliding along a 200m zip-line in a forest near Durban in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal midlands. Doing high-fives with my fellow travellers at the end, I feel like a proud explorer who has peeked into the forest from an unusual vantage point—its roof.

It all began after a gorgeous two-hour drive (123km) from Durban through lush green country this May. The nearly two-decade-old Karkloof Canopy Tour promises a zip-line experience different from the regular one. The platforms are built high amidst the trees to give you an upside-down view of the forested world.

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After a short film that briefs us near the entry point (tickets cost 695 rand, or around 3,440 now, for adults), and sign an indemnity form, we don our harnesses and helmets.

My excitement builds. A scenic, 10-minute drive uphill through the Karkloof valley is followed by a five-minute walk in the forest. “You are on your way to the Rabbit Hole,” reads the sign as I begin my walk. I wonder if I, like Alice, can get lost in the wonderland of this magical woodland.

The first platform is a practice run, just 40m long, at a height of 1,250m above sea level (35m above the forest floor). It’s named “Rabbit Hole” because that is where the adventure starts. “Do not push the hand at the back because that will act as your brake and slow you down,” says Robert, our instructor and guide.

Then it’s time for the real deal. I follow instructions and am off, whoosh! Over the next two hours, we cross this forest on 10 zip-lines, swinging from one platform to another, harnessing ourselves on steel cables, making our way down to the base at 1,100m.

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As I zip across dense green trees, I spot rolling farmlands and meadows at a distance. I forget the instructions and press my left hand on the steel cable. It slows me down. I get stuck towards the end and in a desperate attempt to reach the safe haven of the platform, I start moving like a monkey along the cable. It hurts.

The nearly two-decade-old Karkloof Canopy Tour promises a zip-line experience different from the regular one
The nearly two-decade-old Karkloof Canopy Tour promises a zip-line experience different from the regular one

“Come on, you can do this—you are getting a good upper-body workout,” shouts Robert, who is waiting for me at the next platform. I want someone to come and get me, but that cannot happen. Somehow, I gather the strength to reach the platform. As I look down, I realise I was hanging above a deep forest canopy—my Jungle Book holiday dreams are coming true, even though my arms hurt.

After finishing the first zip-line, I feel much more confident, and as I glide down the second one quite smoothly, I begin to enjoy the scenery. We learn about the birds—the Narina trogon, Knysna turaco and Crowned eagle are special to this area. The biggest and most beautiful butterfly resident is the Citrus swallowtail, but we are not lucky enough to spot it.

Starting from the top and zip-lining one’s way down to the base is not turning out to be as tough as I thought—it’s the perfect combination of speed and height. All the platforms are of different lengths, from 40-200m. Each has its own name—Waterfall, River, Runway, Encore, Squeeze—and story. Why Squeeze? Well, you need to squeeze past a tree to reach it.

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At one of the platforms, I drink fresh spring water from a cascading waterfall with the palm of my hands. I haven’t done this since childhood. There is greenery as far as the eye can see.

Robert tells me there are hundreds of different species in the Karkloof forest, which is located in the sprawling Karkloof nature reserve, a vast expanse of grasslands, wetlands and forests. The dominant species are the yellowwood, which is the national tree, and the white stinkwood. My eye catches some called Cussonia spicata, also known as cabbage trees because they look like a giant version of the vegetable.

I am there in the southern hemisphere’s winter season: Temperatures are hovering around 20 degrees Celsius, the perfect weather for these adventures. As I wait to get going again, I notice a branch in the middle of the zip-line and wonder how I will pass it. We are instructed to go slow and manage the speed with the hand at the back to manoeuvre around it gently.

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Halfway through, Robert takes out juice and biscuits from his bag. “Now it’s time for a break. So relax and enjoy the view,” he tells us. I close my eyes, and can smell and feel the depth of the forest. It feels both warm and cold.

They save the best for last—the longest zip-line, running for 200m. Everything rushes past in seconds. Before I know it, I am back at the base—feeling like I am on top of the world.

FUN IN DURBAN

WALK ALONG GOLDEN MILE

A 6km series of beaches along the Indian Ocean, with a promenade.

GO FOR A SUNSET CRUISE

Take an hour-long boat ride from Durban Harbour and see the city skyline during the golden hour.

EAT BUNNY CHOW

A famous dish of bread hollowed out and filled with curry; available across the city.

SHOP AT VICTORIA STREET MARKET

The oldest market in the city, with over 200 stalls for souvenirs, spices, clothes.

Pallavi Pasricha is a travel and food writer.

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